Saturday, September 15, 2007

My main problem with the film adaptation of Atonement, like the novel, is the ending. Here we have a character, Briony Tallis, who as a thirteen-year-old girl splits up a young couple and sends a young man, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), to jail by falsifying evidence. Years later she realises what she did was wrong and tries to atone for her mistakes. But the way that she tries to do it seems wrong to me.

You see, Briony is a writer, and as a precocious thirteen-year-old girl she attempts to put on a play called The Trials of Arabella. Full of self-importance it promises to be a ridiculous piece. But then as a successful writer, and diagnosed with a terminal disease, she writes a novel about her experiences – about the way she destroyed a burgeoning love affair. She claims it’s entirely autobiographical. And before this we have a powerful scene where an eighteen-year-old Briony, now a nurse in the Second World War, confronts the couple she attempted to split up (the woman in the relationship, played by Keira Knightley, is her sister). Full of anger and regret, it shows how Briony is trying to make things up. She wants to right the wrongs she made.

But then as the older Briony talks at the end, we find out, even though she said the entire book was autobiographical, that this scene is a fiction. Briony never really met her sister during the war. She never met Robbie. Indeed, Robbie never even made it back from Dunkirk. He died of septicaemia. And Cecilia (Knightley) died in an Underground station during the Blitz. What kind of atonement is this? It’s meant to be some kind of offering to the world, to show how glorious their love could be. And it’s also meant to be a way of immortalising their love, to allow them to live on. But personally, I think it suggests that Briony hasn’t learnt a single thing. She’s still the silly little girl living in her dream world. She still can’t accept reality. In fact, the old Briony explains her reasons for not including the actual events by saying it wouldn’t be satisfactory for her readers. Well, maybe it wouldn’t, but at least, for once, it would be the truth – a novel concept for the rather wretched Briony Tallis.

Aside from this, though, I enjoyed the film. And I even have to say that the ending moved me somewhat. But it didn’t move me because of Briony’s ‘atonement’. It moved me because Robbie and Cecilia’s love was never fulfilled. There’s something touching about the banality of Robbie’s death, that such a strong will to survive and that such a determined desire to return home can be extinguished so easily.

Another moving scene is the one where an eighteen-year-old Briony has to comfort a dying French soldier. I can remember it being the most powerful scene in the novel, and it’s equally powerful here. I think it’s the first time that Briony ever realises what love really is, that it isn’t a selfish need to possess another human being (her betrayal of Robbie is entirely motivated by feelings of rejection) but a simple desire to make another person happy. Therefore, when she talks to this dying soldier, a man who’s delirious and who seems to think that he knows her from the past, you get a proper sense that she’s atoning for her mistakes. I really think it’s near impossible for her to untangle the mess she made with Robbie and Cecilia, but the simple way she says ‘Yes’ when the young soldier asks her whether she loves him is so sweet and kind and unselfish that you feel that she’s finally beginning to act selflessly.

However, my favourite scene in the film occurs when Robbie enters Dunkirk. There’s a wonderfully cinematic sequence where the camera floats through the beach and into the town. Around you soldiers lie down to sleep, others fight and some even congregate to sing. And then in the background you have drunk soldiers staggering about and others destroying machinery and vehicles so that the Germans can’t use them. It’s done in such a simple, elegant way. Plus it economically communicates the despair and desperation of the situation. These men can almost see home – they can almost see it on the horizon – but it still seems so far away.

It’s curious, though, that while, in the novel, I wasn’t particularly inspired by the Dunkirk sequence, I loved the opening. But in the film I feel it’s the weakest section. For me it just didn’t have the claustrophobia, the passion and the intensity it has in the book. But maybe the film was always going to struggle with this section – in writing you can kind of tolerate the young Briony, but brought to life she’s rather wretched and annoying. Plus Keira Knightley is never totally convincing. She doesn’t embarrass herself, but she does lack charm and sex appeal. And she also has a habit of trying too hard – just look at her mouth when she says “come back to me” to Robbie; her lips look almost disfigured, she’s trying so hard to impress. But when she relaxes, she's actually fairly capable. There’s a lovely little moment when she holds Robbie’s hand. There’s no pouting, no exaggeration – just a nice bit of warmth and feeling.

Another thing that counts against the opening sequence is that once or twice it’s unintentionally comic. Fair enough you have the silly twins who are meant to garner a laugh or two, but I’m sure that the dramatic, zoomed-in typing of the word ‘cunt’ wasn’t meant to have people rolling in the aisles. But such was the faux profundity of the moment that it did just that.

But these problems aside, Atonement is a decent adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel. I certainly don’t think it should be involved in the upcoming Oscar race, but it deserves to be kindly remembered.

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  1. I'm really looking forward to this one, mate. Loved the book (despite having to analyse it to death for a literature subject I took at uni) & despite the presence of Keira Knightley, who just rubs me the wrong way, it's well up there in the anticipation stakes. Plus, I love me some James McAvoy. Have you ever seen the Brit series Shameless? He's great in that & I have a soft spot for the show, despite what my mates think. ;)

  2. Yeah, the film works despite (not because of) one Keira Knightley... But to think that you're going to have to wait until December for it to come out. Not to rub it in or anything. ;) And there's nothing wrong with Shameless. Although I have to admit, whenever I've caught it (I'm not a devoted follower), I feel kind of bad for enjoying it. My self-righteous, pretentious self says that I should hate it, while my base, lowbrow self gets a kick out of it. :)